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Ice Wine

by Staff Writer - C. Barnett | October 20, 2010

Ice Wine was discovered by accident in 1794 in Franconia, Germany. After an early freeze when grapes were still on the vines, vintners decided to press the grapes anyway to see what could be salvaged. The unexpected result that occurred concentrated both the sugars and flavors of the grapes, and an exceptionally sweet wine was created which was called Eiswein. The grapes are picked and processed before they are thawed out, frozen water and highly concentrated sugar and acid is squeezed out. The result is a sweet, fruity dessert wine. As the process was refined, it was several decades before Ice Wine was produced intentionally in Germany, and production in North America began much later. Ice wine remained Germany's secret until 1962, when it was produced commercially throughout Europe.

Once the grapes are harvested, they are immediately pressed. The water, which is like bits of ice, is what is extracted. The intense flavor comes from the highly concentrated sugar and acid, which did not freeze. After being pressed, the Ice Wine is stored in oak barrels for several months while it ferments. Production is always a bit risky since the vineyard is at the mercy of the weather and yields, quality, and price vary significantly from region to region and from year to year. Ice Wines are now highly prized wines created in Germany, Austria and Canada. One of the most widely respected producers of Ice Wines is the Niagara region of Ontario, Canada.

What makes Ice Wine unique is its distinct flavor and taste. Ice Wine is characterized by a taste of cool sweetness. . The taste of Ice Wine is like a sweet white wine that is dry and thick. It is like a highly concentrated white wine. It should always be served chilled, usually with or following dessert. When Ice Wine grapes are on the vine and frozen, their sugars and other acids do not freeze, they are concentrated. The water of the Ice Wine grapes does freeze and the grapes become dehydrated. This is what contributes to the sweet taste of Ice Wine. To make Ice Wine, you must wait until the grapes have frozen naturally on the vines. This typically means you need two solid days of temperatures in the range of 9°F (–13°C) to 14°F (–10°C) before picking the grapes. This provides the optimum level of sugar and acids for flavor in the grapes.

The grapes used to produce Ice Wine are usually Cabernet Franc, Vidal and Riesling. Riesling grapes are white grapes that are grown in Germany, France, Austria and Italy. Vidal grapes are a white grape hybrid. Cabernet Franc grapes are red wine grapes that are grown in Bordeaux, France. Most Ice Wines have lower alcohol content than regular wines. Some Riesling Ice Wines from Germany have an alcohol content as low as 6%, while Canadian Ice Wines usually have between 8 % and 13% alcohol content. Ice Wine grapes freeze before they are allowed to ferment. One notable thing about Ice Wine grapes is that they are not affected by Botrytis cinerea. Botrytis cinerea is a fungus that affects wine grapes. This means that before harvesting, Ice Wine grapes are healthy and in good condition. Only healthy grapes can be harvested and when the grapes are free of Botrytis cinerea, they offer a better tasting wine.

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Since creating Ice Wine requires a very late harvest, it means that the grapes will have a very high sugar content. Grapes are usually picked by hand and pressed while the grapes are still frozen. Sometimes the grapes are picked in the middle of the night to ensure that the temperature does not rise above freezing. This is the crucial step because when frozen grapes are pressed, most of the water remains behind as ice crystals, and the juice obtained is very highly concentrated. The colder the grapes, the higher the percentage of sugar in the juice, and that is what is needed for Ice Wine—a minimum of 35% sugar. This juice is then fermented naturally over a period of weeks or months and bottled more like regular wine. Ice Wine production is very labor intensive, with yields around 10% of a regular harvest, which leads to Ice Wine being sold in half bottles (375ml). Another reason that the smaller bottles are a good idea is because Ice Wine is very sweet and usually high in alcohol content too, so it is normally consumed in very small quantities.

In Germany, Canada and Austria, Ice Wine grapes must freeze naturally in order for their wine to be titled Ice Wine. In contrast, some wineries use a process called cryoextraction to produce non-traditional Ice Wines. Cryoextraction is a mechanical freezing of the Ice Wine grapes. Cryoextraction mimics the effect of the frost on naturally frozen Ice Wine grapes. Grapes that have been mechanically frozen are harvested differently than naturally frozen grapes. Ice wines produced in this manner are sometimes referred to as "icebox wines." Properly created Canadian Ice Wine must follow Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) regulations to ensure a quality product. One of the main rules is that the wine must be naturally produced, with no artificial freezing allowed. This makes Ice Wine very difficult to create because grapes must be guarded against too extreme temperatures, and because they are the last grapes on the vines, they must be defended vigorously against birds and other animals.

Ice Wine is best served chilled and goes well with any dessert. It should be savored and appreciated and drunk slowly. Since Ice Wines are dessert wines, they can be paired with almost any dessert. Ice Wine has a distinctive sweet taste, so if you are pairing it with a dessert, beware of overly sweet desserts. Ice Wines taste great with pies, cakes, custards, puddings, and cheese such as bleu or goat cheese.

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